Marisha Wallace: ‘There’s got to be diversity across the board’

Marisha Wallace is in the midst of rehearsals for the West End musical Hairspray when we speak. “I took a coronavirus test just now,” she says cheerfully. “This is the way life is now, but it’s worth it because the show is going so well, it’s so amazing to be back in a room with real people singing together.”

Marisha Wallace
Marisha Wallace

She tells of the joy of being part of a “stellar” cast that includes Michael Ball and Les Dennis, but there’s also a sense of relief at finally being able to get back to work after more than a year of theatres being dark.

“The major emotion is everyone’s happy, but also anxious because it’s still uncertain what’s going to happen,” she says. “And also not having done this for a year, it’s a muscle, it’s like not going to the gym for a year then going right back out there to do a marathon. But you get the training wheels back on.”

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Wallace says she’s also “proud” to be part of bringing people back to the theatre, “giving people joy that they’ve missed out on for the past year...there’s been so much negativity on the news.”

Michael Ball also features in a duet on the actor and singer’s album Tomorrow, which came out at the end of last year. This autumn she will be doing a six-date concert tour.

The album project came together with Decca Records after Wallace released a recording of the song Tomorrow, from the musical Annie, to raise funds for those in the theatre industry affected by lockdown.

She says at the point when she made the single she was wary for the future and unsure of whether to return home to the US. “I felt I was at the top of my game then all of a sudden I had the rug pulled out from under me, and I’m one of the fortune ones. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those artists living pay cheque to pay cheque who if they’re out of work for one week won’t be able to pay their rent or buy groceries.

“So I recorded Tomorrow because it gave me hope, and also to raise money. I worked with MAD Trust UK and also Broadway Cares. I thought I was going to raise a couple of hundred dollars but when Michael Ball played it on Radio 2 it went to number two on the iTunes chart and the song blew up. We raised £7,000 for the charities, I got a record deal from it, the Royal family heard the song and asked me to do the Royal Variety Show and I got to go on Strictly (Come Dancing). It was amazing, all that from wanting to help other people who were struggling, and then my dream came true in turn. It was a beautiful thing.”

Wallace credits the producer and musician Steve Anderson, who has regularly collaborated with Kylie Minogue, for guiding her through the process of making the album. “We became musical soul mates,” she says. “He’s not about the money, he’s all about the music, and that’s what I’m about. Also, he was the first one that could really capture my voice on wax in the way that it feels when it’s live – that was something that was really important to me.”

Alongside standards from musicals, the album includes powerhouse renditions of Queen’s The Show Must Go On and Prince’s Purple Rain. The former, Wallace says, was intended as a “rallying cry, to say to people we can do this”; the latter had deeply personal significance.

“There was a lot of talk about mental health issues in the pandemic, and it affected me personally,” she says. “My ex-husband tried to commit suicide during the pandemic and I had no idea. He had reached back out to me and I had been talking to him, then I found out he had tried to do that, he was actually in a facility for it. Just that feeling of not knowing how to help someone with mental health issues and being the wife or the mother or the daughter of someone who’s struggling with that and not knowing how to handle it, that’s why I did that cover. I want to see you laughing, I want to see you happy in the purple rain, but how do I do that? That’s where that arrangement came from. It gives those songs a whole new meaning for me, it really was a personal thing.”

Tomorrow also features three new songs, specially written by Natasha Bedingfield, Camille Purcell and JinJin. Wallace says she was keen to see showcase the work of women songwriters. “This pandemic has definitely brought about a reckoning,” she says. “Who is getting all the opportunities? How can get we get people that don’t have them more opportunities? That was something that I’m very interested in, pushing women to the front, pushing more racial diversity, pushing more gender diversity. Finding these amazing women songwriters was incredible, and it’s also nice to hear a song written from a woman’s perspective and a woman singing it. It just gives it a bit of power, I think.”

Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, Wallace was inspired by her high school teacher – “her name was Miss Grantham” – to foster her performing talents. “I was in a show choir, which was like real-life Glee,” she says. “She told me, ‘You’re not like the other kids, I think you should definitely pursue this as a career’. I didn’t know anything about this stuff, I grew up a pig farm, I was a country girl who used to sing at church.”

She got into university but had to have surgery for a cyst on her vocal cords. “That just took on this whole other life for me,” she says. “Right at the beginning of my career I was already pushed back. I think that was the best thing for me because it made me a fighter, it made me want to beat the odds no matter what. I was told I was never going to sing again but I got the surgery then I rehabilitated, I worked really hard with an opera singer who was amazing and I got my voice back and it was stronger than ever. I was 18 years old and if you’d told me then I would have the career that I’ve had I wouldn’t believe you.”

Today Wallace senses a move towards greater diversity in the theatre world both in the UK and US. “People are having to re-evaluate and say, ‘how am I contributing to diversity going forward, how am I adding to the cause, how am I being a solution instead of being a hindrance?’,” she says. “I think a lot of companies have had to re-evaluate and say, ‘I don’t have any black people on my staff’ or ‘I don’t have any gender diverse people on my staff’. People are definitely going back to look through and saying, ‘OK, wait. Are we doing this correctly?’ and that’s what this is about, it’s about going back and checking on yourself and saying ‘how can I be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem?’ I think that’s what theatre has to do as well, and not just onstage.

“We need to say ‘who’s producing the shows, who has access to the prosperity of the theatre’, because it’s only been a select few people for a very long time. And there have been other people who have committed their lives to making these people have these positions, when are they going to give back? When are they going to say, ‘we need more black producers, we need more female writers’? There’s got to be full diversity across the board, not just onstage but behind the scenes as well.”

Living in London during the pandemic, Wallace watched the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd with interest. “It was crazy,” she says. “My American friends would call me to tell me how they were going out. Watching it on television, I felt a bit helpless. But also here in the UK, it was also a reckoning about race. It felt like trauma, because I grew up in the South with racism and it was kind of like ‘this is what it is’ and we learned to just live with it.

“That whole George Floyd thing pulled the band-aid off it for me and my wounds were exposed. I thought, ‘My God, this is something I don’t really talk about, this is something I just kind of sweep under the rug and get on with my day’, but to have it out there I felt very vulnerable and very exposed but also it was necessary, that it needed to happen. I felt things we talk about as black people behind closed doors were open to everyone – and that’s what it takes, that communication, to say ‘this is how I’ve been hurt, this is how I felt’ and then other people, allies, people who have made micro-aggressions or have been a part of that problem can say, ‘OK, how can I change that for myself?’ and also how can I, as a black person, continue to move in this world without oppression. It made me re-evaluate that and say, ‘I’ve been so successful with oppression, how much successful could I have been without it?’

“That makes me sad but it also gives me hope that if those gates are left open and if there’s not people saying ‘you’re too black, you’re too fat, you’re too this, you’re too that’, how high could I fly? That’s what made me excited about it, now there may be more opportunities, more space for me to grow and do what I love to do. That’s ultimately what you want people to do, to do the things they love.”

Tomorrow is out now. Marisha Wallace plays at Kings Hall, Ilkley on September 24.